PA Attorney General Subpoenas Alt-Right Friendly Social Media Site’s Newest Domain Provider

January 22, 2019

Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, recently subpoenaed the new domain provider of the controversial social media site Gab. The subpoena requests that Epik, a Seattle-based company, provide “any and all documents which are related in any way to Gab.”

Gab, a social media site popular with the alt-right for its stance on “free speech,” has found itself at the center of controversy yet again. This time, however, one perpetrator of hate speech on the site turned his violent words into violent actions when, after posting on Gab, he followed through on his threats, attacking and murdering worshipers during Shabbat morning services at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018.

Following the mass-shooting in Pittsburg, the gunman’s online presence revealed that he frequently posted violent, antisemitic, anti-immigrant rants on Gab, and that his most recent Gab post indicated that he was going to perpetrate a violent hate crime immanently.

…one perpetrator of hate speech on the site turned his violent words into violent actions when, after posting on Gab, he followed through on his threats, attacking and murdering worshipers…

 Following the mass-shooting in Pittsburg, the gunman’s online presence revealed that he frequently posted violent, antisemitic, anti-immigrant rants on Gab, and that his most recent Gab post indicated that he was going to perpetrate a violent hate crime immanently.

Considering the horror of the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue, it’s not surprising that Gab quickly found itself forced offline when its domain provider, GoDaddy, severed ties with the company. It’s also unsurprising that many other companies working with the site chose to do the same thing (Paypal, Stripe, Joyent, Shopify, and Medium). What is surprising, however, is that within a week, this hate speech riddled start-up, known in the tech world as a haven for white nationalists (a 2016 Wired article referred to the site as “an artifact from a dystopian universe where the alt-right completely took over Twitter”), managed to find a new domain provider and is now up and running again.

Gab CEO and founder, Andrew Torba, is of the opinion that his social media platform has been unfairly and “systematically” targeted in the wake of the mass shooting. He seems to accept no responsibility whatsoever for the content of his site, claiming not to see the gunman’s final post (or previous posts that clearly threaten synagogues affiliated with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as an actual threat of harm.

The thing is, this isn’t the first time Gab’s repugnant content has run afoul of tech-company ethics. Earlier this year, a neo-Nazi who ran for the U.S. Senate “twice posted calls for physically harming Jews.” A Washington Post article points out that despite assurances from Gab that threats are taken seriously, these posts were only removed following a warning from Microsoft that the domain would be banned from their platform (it should be noted that Gab still technically didn’t remove them, the user agreed to remove them himself).

Earlier still, Google knocked Gab out of the Android app store, citing its content and unenforced moderation policies. Gab also lost its domain provider prior to GoDaddy in 2017 because of posts that degraded a Charlottesville protest victim. Aussie tech company, Instra, threatened to cancel Gab’s domain if the posts weren’t deleted. Although Gab did delete the posts, ultimately Instra terminated Gab anyway, explaining that the site’s content offended “Australian federal and state discrimination laws, which prohibit public vilification on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic origin.” In a somewhat ironic twist, those responsible for the posts that resulted in Instra’s termination of Gab were the same neo-Nazis linked to another site that had just lost its domain with GoDaddy. GoDaddy then picked up Gab as a client.

While the attorney general’s office has not yet clarified why it subpoenaed Epik, the move does have some legal scholars scratching their heads. Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University, told Arstechnica that 1) the antisemitic posts in question are likely protected by the First Amendment, and 2) neither Gab nor its domain provider would be liable for the content posted by the domestic terrorist who perpetrated the Tree of Life attack because of protections under federal law. Beyond this, Goldman suggests that this tactic could lead to First Amendment issues, comparing the present situation to an injunction granted in 2015 against a sheriff who tried to get third parties to drop Backpage as a customer for allegedly profiting from the sex trafficking of minors.

Others argue that these extremist groups and domestic terrorists will soon move completely to the dark web if they are ousted from social media platforms, so we should ask ourselves whether it’s better for hate speech to be “out in the open, or hidden from view”.

For now though, as long as companies like Gab persist in lax monitoring practices, and no thought is given to intervening in acts of domestic terrorism, it’s safe to say that by allowing this to continue we are normalizing intolerance, bigotry, and violence. We are accomplishing nothing but the potential indoctrination of angry and impressionable followers. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, hate speech should not be tolerated, promoted, or protected, and it certainly should not be given a platform. We have seen time and time again that violent words all too frequently become violent actions.

Suzanne Zelenka, 12 November 2018